Neck rubs, expensive dinners, allegations of wiretapping, awkward handshake moments.
Angela Merkel has seen pretty much everything when it comes to US presidents.
The German Chancellor is making her 19th and possibly last official visit to the United States on Thursday for a meeting with President Joe Biden – her fourth US president – as she nears the end of her 16-year term.
Merkel, who turns 67 on Saturday, will retire from politics shortly after deciding long ago not to run for a fifth term in Germany’s September 26 election.
One of the longest-serving leaders of one of America’s closest allies, Merkel is ready to receive a warm welcome when she meets Biden on his first visit to Washington since taking office in January.
Still, contentious issues are on the table – including the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany, which the United States has long opposed, and Biden’s efforts to convince European allies to drop objections. intellectual property waivers for sharing COVID-19 vaccines with the developing world.
It is an appropriate coda for Merkel’s relations with the American leadership. A look at the ups and downs over the years:
GEORGE W. BUSH
Merkel came to power at the start of Bush’s second term and set out to mend relations cooled by her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder’s vocal opposition to the war in Iraq.
She quickly became a close ally, perhaps finding the way to the president’s heart was through her stomach. During a visit to Merkel’s parliamentary constituency in northeastern Germany in July 2006, Bush couldn’t help but talk about a roast wild boar the Chancellor had prepared for him.
At a Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, days later, Bush gave Merkel an impromptu neck and shoulder rub that quickly spread across the internet. Merkel hunched her shoulders in surprise, raised her arms and grimaced, but appeared to smile as Bush walked away. When Merkel visited the White House the following January, Bush promised, “No back rub.
In November 2007, Bush welcomed Merkel to her ranch in Crawford, Texas. “In Texas, when you invite someone over to your house, it’s an expression of warmth and respect and that’s how I feel for Chancellor Merkel,” Bush said in jeans as he greeted Merkel at the helipad from the property and drove her in her pickup to her house.
Merkel’s relationship with Obama has not had the best start. In July 2008, the Chancellor dismissed the idea of candidate Obama giving a speech outside Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate, saying it was the backdrop for presidents’ speeches. Obama moved on to another Berlin landmark, the Victory Column.
Yet the Chancellor – who shared Obama’s business manners but, unlike the new president, never had much time for rising political rhetoric – forged a solid working relationship with him. He seemed to gain personal warmth over time.
During Merkel’s 2011 visit to Washington, the two leaders dined at an upscale restaurant, an unusual Obama opening. Days later, he welcomed Merkel to the White House for an official state dinner, where he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest honor bestowed on civilians.
Obama had the opportunity to speak at the Brandenburg Gate in June 2013. Merkel was there to introduce him.
A difficult test followed with reports later in the year that the US National Security Agency tapped German government phones, including Merkel’s. Merkel said “spying on friends” was unacceptable. But she did not let that cast a lasting shadow on transatlantic ties.
Obama made a final visit as president in November 2016, dining with Merkel at her hotel in Berlin. He was back as ex-president a few months later, participating in a public discussion with Merkel and calling her “one of my favorite partners throughout my presidency”.
Merkel’s congratulations to Trump after being elected in 2016 set the tone for many things that followed. In a pointed message, she proposed “close cooperation” on the basis of shared transatlantic values which she said include respect for human dignity, regardless of a person’s origin, gender or religion.
The former physicist and former reality TV star were never an obvious personal match, but generally kept their looks when they were together in public.
Merkel’s first visit to Trump’s White House in March 2017 produced a notoriously awkward moment in the Oval Office. The photographers shouted “handshake!” And Merkel quietly asked Trump, “Would you like to have a handshake?” There was no response from the President, who looked ahead with folded hands.
Trump has never made a bilateral visit to Germany in his four-year mandate, although he did come for Merkel’s Group of 20 summit in Hamburg in 2017.
At the 2018 Group of Seven summit in Canada, Merkel’s office posted a photo of her leaning on a table in front of Trump, surrounded by other seemingly frustrated Allied leaders.
Merkel’s Germany was a prime target of Trump’s wrath. The president called the NATO ally a “delinquent” for not spending enough on defense and announced that he would withdraw around 9,500 of the approximately 34,500 American troops stationed in Germany.
Merkel suggested in 2017 that Europe could no longer fully rely on the United States. And, speaking at Harvard University in 2019, she said a new generation of leaders must “tear down the walls of ignorance” and reject isolationism to overcome global problems.
Merkel greeted Biden’s 2020 election with barely disguised relief, saying he brought decades of experience to the job, that he “knows Germany and Europe well” and citing fond memories of the previous meetings.
In February, she effusively greeted her first speech to a global audience.
“Things are looking much better for multilateralism this year than they were two years ago, and it has a lot to do with Joe Biden becoming president of the United States,” Merkel said.
As vice president, Biden had a relationship with Merkel during Obama’s presidency, but the two were never particularly close.
Seeking to strengthen ties, Biden made it a priority to engage with Merkel in several initial videoconference meetings shortly after taking office. He also waived sanctions against the company behind the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, although he reiterated his preference for Germany to drop the project.
Since Biden’s inauguration on January 20, there haven’t been many opportunities for in-person interaction. Both attended last month’s G-7 summit in England and the NATO summit in Brussels, but Thursday will be their first major bilateral meeting.
Merkel will be the first European leader to visit the White House in the Biden administration.
AP writer Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.